The conference, hosted this week by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA), also declared that a renewed emphasis on biosecurity measures by producers in the UK would also reduce the prevalence of the food bug.
Some 90 experts from 14 countries – including the United States, New Zealand, Canada and a host of European nations – joined industry players, representatives from major supermarket chains and regulators from the UK to hear that Campylobacter is the most common bacterial cause of food poisoning, causing an estimated 300,000 cases of illness every year in England and Wales alone.
A recent European Union baseline survey found that 75 per cent of UK broilers were contaminated with the bacteria. Andrew Wadge, FSA chief scientist, said tackling campylobacter in UK chicken was a key food safety priority for the FSA over the next five years. Current levels of the bacteria were “too high", he added.
“We wanted to hear measures other countries have used to cut Campylobacter levels and see how we could make them work in the UK,” Gael O’Neill, head of agency’s foodborne diseases strategy branch, told FoodProductionDaily.com.
In the wide-ranging two-day summit, experts discussed the role enhanced packaging could play in tackling the bug – with leak-proof packing and modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) tabled as having a role.
“The possibility of decontaminating the external packaging of poultry packs was discussed,” said O’Neill. “The effectiveness of MAP solutions with high oxygen content that inhibit the growth of Campylobacter was also examined.”
Such measures would almost certainly have cost implications and their adoption would need the backing of the UK’s powerful retailers - which have conducted a fierce price war in meat sales over the last few years. It also follows on from a recent FSA report urging supermarkets to overhaul their poultry purchasing policies in a bid to combat the problem of campylobacter by increasing the prices paid to suppliers.
Retailers will be one group who will look at the idea in more detail at a meeting of the joint government working group due to be held over the next few weeks, added O’Neill.
Biosecurity and antibacterial washes
Scandinavian countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Iceland, explained that their success in slashing rates of the bacteria was built on strict implementation of insecurity measures – with good hygiene practice by producers on farms being key.
Delegates from New Zealand highlighted how the use of chlorine-based antimicrobial washes in slaughterhouses had also cut Campylobacter contamination. Many of these treatments are currently not permitted in the EU but O’Neill said the summit had agreed that lobbying at a European level to change this should begin.
"This is a complex issue and could take quite a long time as agreement from member states would be needed," she said.
Wadge believed that people “should keep an open mind” that the EU could shift on the issue. The chief scientist cited the washing of chicken in lactic acid as a possible catalyst for change as it is “already a common component of food which has potential benefits for food safety”.
The conference concluded that here was no magic bullet solution to combat the prevalence of the bacteria in UK poultry but instead two or three steps that could be taken. While the UK has biosecurity measures in place, there was a need to make people think more closely about the issue, said the experts. Improving packaging, implementation of some already legal treatments such as steaming, as well as supply-chain improvements spurred by retailer-willingness to change their buying policies were also mooted.